The Guggenheim Museum transformed Bilbao into a top city brand

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Cities have to develop
into successful brands

By Kevin Visdeloup, Art Editor

19 January 2010: In today’s environment cities compete against each other for talent, business and resources. In many ways they have to act like commercial enterprises by selling themselves to potential customers – business investors, visitors and the creative classes – as successful, vibrant, forward-looking brands.

| Living legends | The Bilbao effect | The VIP city | Niketowns | Detroit | Leipzig | Lyon |

Modern cities must re-examine their role and purpose as well as define their appeal to ‘consumers’. They must distinguish themselves from their competitors and position themselves as a recognisable brand in an increasingly international market place. Relying on past glory is no longer enough. Today, successful companies and young talented people have lost hometown loyalties. They can choose where to cluster. Cities with distinctive characteristics, be they economic, cultural, environmental or life style, will attract the best companies and people.

Living legends
As with companies, a city's distinctiveness begins with an understanding of what it wants to be and what it has to offer. The city's actual condition is established and then the distinctive features and tools at its disposal are determined with a view to carving out a clear and strong identity.

Because the identity of a particular city is inevitably influenced by its past, it seems reasonable to take advantage of old strengths. Cities with an imposing historic architecture and long-standing traditions are still able to seize the opportunity of successfully building their new identities around such heritage.

To be richly endowed, like Rome, with cultural treasures is obviously a tremendous advantage. In fact, Rome besides having been blessed by a large number of stunning architectural gems such as the Coliseum and St Peter's Basilica, has profoundly influenced the world's social, cultural and political development over the past 2,500 years. This majestic heritage continues to attract people from all over the world, reinforcing its long-standing reputation as the Eternal City.

For Rome, as with any other city of culture, historical edifices are essential ingredients of its identity, image, and attractiveness. Every year the Coliseum and the Vatican Museums attract some four million tourists, while the Eiffel Tower surpasses six million visitors annually. But not only historic monuments attract paying visitors in their millions. Munich’s Oktoberfest, the world's largest amusement fair, also welcomes some six million guests each year.

Cities that do not enjoy the benefit of a rich cultural heritage have to, if they don’t want to be overlooked, develop their own style and attractions. Bilbao is the prefect example.

The Bilbao effect
In the second half of the 20th century, Bilbao suffered from the effects of a declining steel and shipbuilding industry. A strategy was needed to transform the city into a centre for tourism and modern service industries. Of course, the city was fortunate to having been chosen by the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation as the location for its new museum and having had Frank Gehry to design a landmark building, which, in terms of impact, is second only to the Sydney Opera House. But the city did not rely only on the Guggenheim. When building its new Metro underground railway, it commissioned the British architect Norman Foster to design stations and street-level entrances.

Since the opening of the museum in 1997, Bilbao belongs to an exclusive group of cities, New York, Venice, Las Vegas and Berlin being the other, which are home to Guggenheim museums. Bilbao’s strategy has paid off for some considerable time, with a constant flow of more than a million annual visitors during the past decade, despite critics warning of the ephemeral effect of such ‘overnight’ facelifts. Indeed, today we often use the term 'Bilbao effect' when describing the targeted enhancement of a landscape through new and spectacular buildings. However, one must not forget that the Guggenheim Foundation was also fortunate to have partnered with a committed farsighted city.

The VIP city
The best example of a VIP city is Hollywood. For a hundred years now, this district of Los Angeles has constantly brought forth new films and new star celebrities, establishing itself as the embodiment of American cinema. As a result, an unavoidable side effect of branding Hollywood solely and strongly as the home of the American movie is that people today only associate the town with films and their stars.

A different kind of VIP city are Toyota (Japan) and Wolfsburg (Germany). Both cities have become synonymous with carmakers Toyota and Volkswagen. Given the mono-industrial orientation of their economies - that is, the automotive industry - Toyota and Wolfsburg are both strongly and almost exclusively branded by their characteristic car makes.


Apart from this kind of mono branding by local companies ‘born and raised’ in a city, a labelling by international premium companies is taking place today, especially in large metropolitan areas. The sportswear supplier Nike is one of the best known examples of such urban marketing strategies in setting up several flagship stores (the main store of a retail chain, exclusive by its immense size and selection) in cities like Berlin, London, and NYC Manhattan. These flagship stores, officially entitled Niketowns, are sought after to such a degree by both sports enthusiasts and tourists that cities including Shanghai, Sidney and Toronto have applied for the official title of Niketown. While Nike's desire is to become a spatial part of some of the world's most vibrant cities, the cities in turn wish to share Nike's image as an international innovator.

Detroit, the urban farm
For decades Detroit, home of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, proudly displayed its nickname Motown - a portmanteau of the words motor and town – a name so popular that in 1960 Berry Gordy named his record label Motown. Since the recent collapse of General Motors and Chrysler, the world's automotive capital represents a prime example of a city whose foundations crumbled with the loss of its showcase companies. Since public funds for the reinvention of a city are almost non-existent in the US, private investors have to intervene. Hantz Farms came up with a unique approach. “To rejuvenate our city by returning to our agrarian roots” is the solution proposed by Hantz Farms, a company that has set itself the task of transforming Detroit into “the world's largest urban farm”. Within a cleaner and greener environment for children, and in a place with numerous eco-friendly jobs, Hantz Farms now promotes “a generous supply of fresh, local, safe produce” for residents and the outlying regions.

According to German business magazine brand eins, John Hantz, the former manager of American Express, and initiator of Hantz Farms, is preparing to buy up a fifth of all Detroit's empty areas within the next five years with a view to partially de=urbanising the city. By doing so, Hantz aims to “redefine urban growth“, as the Hantz Farm website puts it.

Leipzig, the artist's new playground
Meanwhile in Europe, the eastern German city of Leipzig, another well-known former industrial community, has found its own way of saving its old buildings from decay while simultaneously improving the cityscape and atmosphere of its blighted areas.

As thousands of vacant Gründerzeit buildings (originally dating from the economic boom years of the late 19th century) no longer met housing regulations and were threatened with demolition, numerous creative organisations came to their rescue by turning the vacant buildings and factories into a vibrant location for their own concerts, cafés, artists’ studios, and the like. Indeed, Leipzig's homeowners are even encouraged to place their empty sites at the disposal of ‘creatives’ by the local government. Those who do so are exempt from property tax.

The selected synthesis of old and new structures is commonly agreed to be an exemplary solution to the problems that had beset this ancient German city. With ‘creatives’ being given the opportunity of establishing themselves in moderately-priced premises, the city also benefits from a new cultural centre of attraction while saving on restoration and demolition costs.

Lyon, city in lights
Without doubt, competing with cities like Paris will always prove to be particularly demanding. Lyon, the east-central French metropolis, however, has found a way to avoid being completely overshadowed by the French capital. As early as 1989, Lyon launched its Plan Lumière (illumination plan) with the artificial illumination of more than 200 buildings and public spaces, thereby painting the city and its main attractions in a new, aesthetic light.

The new lighting effectively builds on the traditional fêtes des lumières (Festival of Lights) held on 8 December each year, where the people of Lyon express their gratitude to Mary, mother of Jesus, by placing candles on the windowsills of their homes. Since 2001 the festival, known all over Europe as a unique event, has attracted more than four million visitors a year – as many French as foreigners.

“The light has modified the cityscape, thereby creating a genuine tourist attraction. The twofold nature involving tradition and innovation, has permitted the Plan Lumière to make the city a worldwide benchmark in the field,” a Lyon tourist official said.

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